Thursday, January 26, 2012

Field Work and Estancias

I've been spending the week doing something I never do... field work! Every day I sit at a desk looking at a computer screen mapping the world with very few chances to actually see what is on the ground. In college I majored in geography, which for me was a mix of social and physical science. I took many classes where science was very relevant to my studies including geology, water quality, and ecology, but I never was trained to be a scientist in terms of learning scientific methodologies. This week has been fun in that regard, because I have been working with a field scientist to help identify plant species found in landscapes used and managed predominantly for grazing sheep and cattle. To help monitor how that landscape is doing and to set up a baseline for future monitoring work, my task was simple, hold a clipboard and a list of plant species and tally the number of species I find every meter for 50 meters. Luckily, I wasn't the one expected to identify the species, but it was my chance to play outside with biologists.

Over the last four days, I've traveled down many dirt roads. To my surprise, the main highway east out of Bariloche is not paved! Bariloche is in central Argentina on the east slopes of the Andes Mountains. This dirt highway out of Bariloche extends east for 600 kilometers to the Atlantic Ocean, clear across Argentina! It doesn't take long before the green pines and shrubs of Bariloche turn to expansive and vast dry grasslands. In my Washington centered mind I think of Bariloche as being very similar to an area like Leavenworth because it is nestled close to the eastern side of the mountains and, although dry, still receives enough moisture to have trees. The areas we were sampling in were very dry, similar to areas around Moses Lake or Vantage. This region of Patagonia is so big and vast it is almost incomprehensible!

We drove to a small town called Jacobacci where we sampled and then stayed the evening in what I can image was the town's only hotel. It was simple and quaint and had a down to earth feel. The couple that ran the place must of been well into their 80s. They ran both the hotel and the restaurant that was connected to it. That evening our group of seven sat down for a home cooked Argentina meal. The first thing to appear was a cart of appetizers. Each of us took a plate from the table and served ourselves from the cart of traditional dishes (as I understood, these dishes are often served at parties or special events in Argentina). I had a cold beet salad, a layered tortilla cake with tomatoes, hard boiled egg, and mayonnaise (among other things), mushrooms thinly sliced and rolled with a vegetable filling, and raw seasoned red meat. Now, I am not sure I would of eaten the raw red meat if I knew it was so, but as it turns out it was good and also didn't kill me! Of course, I don't remember what any of these dishes are actually called, but I did get a cookbook recommended to me that I want to buy. It is called Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way.

For my main dish at the hotel restaurant, I had steak with a mushroom sauce and for dessert tiramisu! Pretty fancy for a small town in the back country! The next night we stayed at research station and grilled chorizo sausage we picked up at a local meat shop and ate chorizo sandwiches on crusty french bread from a local panaderia. There were no big grocery stores out in these parts. All the food was locally made, which made it even more delicious to me!

Our field work took us to three estancias. The majority of land in Argentina is privately owned and some of these landowners have estancias, or land estates, that are thousands and thousands of acres. In fact, I learned that some of these estancias are larger than many U.S. national parks (excluding those in Alaska of course). These wealthy landowners are often from all over the world and manage a staff of people to run the management of the estancia, including gauchos, or Argentina cowboys. There is much folklore surrounding the guacho. The gaucho plays an important symbolic role in the nationalist feelings of this region of Patagonia. Many school children in Argentina read the epic poem Martín Fierro by José Hernández, about a guacho who was a symbol against corruption and of Argentina national tradition. I'd love to read the poem to better understand this country and the landscape I've been exploring.

During our field work this week, we came across many animal species as well. I saw Andean Condors soaring in big blue skies. Condors are the largest flying bird in the world! We saw one land on a cattle carcass in a field as we were passing by. Even from a far distance it looked huge! We also saw a small armadillo run across the road and managed to stop the truck and catch it! It was really cute, but probably something a gaucho would eat in the half shell for dinner! Today at one of the estancias we saw a herd of red deer and about five guanacos (an animal in the llama family). One of my favorite sightings was a Darwin's Rhea, or a Choica as the locals would call it. Choicas are related to ostriches, but are much smaller. I also saw many bird species, including the Chilean flamingo. I wasn't able to get pictures of many of these, but I did get a picture of the armadillo and of a lizard that was running from one bunch of grass to another. It has been a lot of fun discovering new wildlife and plant species this week!

Tomorrow I am back in the field for one more day. In the meantime, I am going to get some much needed sleep! Check out my collection of pictures below showcasing the past four days...

Above: The first day of field work we had some light rain, which is unusual this time of year and in this dry landscape. I was lucky and looked around to find this lovely scene.

Above: The field crew busy at work. We laid out a tape measure and cataloged plant species found in different grazing management areas.

Above: A cactus I found at one of our monitoring sites.

Above: A lizard who paused long enough for me to get up close enough to photograph.

Above: An afternoon lunch stop in the Patagonian grasslands.

Above: Horses left to roam on a forgotten estancia.

Above: A photograph of the Patagonia grassland and the ash suspended in the air by a nearby erupting volcano. The big eruption occurred last year, but it continues to spew ash.


  1. You are getting some beautiful photos. Wow. Just fantastic. What an experience. It is so much fun to see it through your photos. Thanks for posting!!!!